A project to collect DNA samples and medical information from half a million Britons was launched this week, after years of planning. The UK Biobank, hosted at the University of Manchester, eventually wants to recruit up to 500,000 volunteers aged between 40-69 years. Initially, 3000 people living in the south Manchester area are being invited to take part in the research, which aims to study the role of genes and environment in health and disease. The £61 million effort is being jointly funded by the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), Department of Health, the Scottish Executive and the Wellcome Trust medical charity.
Biobank will gather, store and protect a 'vast bank' of medical information and samples, which scientists will use to study how complex interactions between genes, lifestyle and environment affect the risk of common diseases. 'Nothing like this has been attempted before in such fine detail on such a vast scale', said principal investigator Rory Collins - also Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. 'By being so large and detailed, UK Biobank will be able to study many different risk factors together, each of which may have only modest effects on the likelihood of getting some particular disease', he added.
Biobank has attracted criticism from some scientists, who have expressed concerns over the cost and effectiveness of the project. However, according to a recent report in the Observer newspaper, some of these fears now appear to have been assuaged. A 2003 report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee had criticised plans for the project, saying it would divert funds away from other research. But Dr Ian Gibson, the committee's former chair, now says he is hopeful that under Collins' leadership, Biobank will prove to be a success.
The first volunteers will spend an hour at an assessment centre in Altrincham, Cheshire, during which time they will answer questions, have measurements taken and provide blood and urine samples. They will also be asked to agree to Biobank tracking their health for many years, using routine medical and other relevant records. Once this initial phase is completed, the rest of the study will start up. By the end of the year, the organisers hope that 8-10 assessment centres will be running around the UK at any one time.
Collins describes taking part in the project as being a bit like donating blood: 'you probably won't benefit, but others will. In this case it will be your children and grandchildren's generation'. He told the BBC News website that 'in 10, 20 or 30 years time we'll be able to confirm or refute various theories about how some diseases are caused', adding 'we'll be able to identify new ways of identifying diseases and preventing them'.
But one senior researcher, who wished to remain anonymous, told the BBC that they still have doubts about the data collection aspect of the project, saying that 'there's been no real consultation with scientists who know how to collect information about behaviour'. Collins says he's aware of uninformed, but not informed criticism. 'The science behind the project has been reviewed by our experts and they are telling us it's a very good project', he said.